There is probably a very specific kind of person who is legitimately upset that the members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers did not play their own instruments during their performance with Bruno Mars at Sunday night’s Super Bowl halftime show. I’m not sure who that person is, exactly, because I’m not sure who, in 2014, consider Red Hot Chili Peppers to be on the cutting edge of rock music. But that person is upset this week, because they could tell that the band were doing little less than performing the Rock Band version of “Give It Away,” pretending to play musical instruments along with a prerecorded track.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers came in a little over eight minutes after headliner Bruno Mars took the stage with a medley of his recent hits, pulling out arguably their most famous song, from the 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. I wouldn’t claim it made much sense to awkwardly transition from Mars’ big band-infused pop to an early-’90s alt-rock hit, but I suppose the blending of the two musical acts was an attempt at pleasing several demographics at once.
It’s a perfectly adequate performance, the highlight being how great Anthony Kiedis looks without a shirt at the age of 51. Still, some with better eyes than I could point out that the rest of the band members — Flea, Chad Smith, and Josh Klinghoffer — were not playing their instruments, instead miming along to a prerecorded tape.
Common sense provides a pretty obvious explanation for why this would be the case, and if you’ve ever sat in a live venue waiting patiently for upwards of 40 minutes for a band to set up their gear, tune their instruments, etc., you can imagine that delaying the Super Bowl for a similar length of time while broadcasting a concert set-up would not make very compelling live television. This multimillion-dollar event needs to be seamless; once those football players recede back into their locker rooms for their break, the stage must quickly go up, the audience let loose onto the field, and the band rapidly set up — all this for a 15-minute musical performance that will be broadcast across the globe from a venue not designed with acoustics in mind.
Of course, had Flea and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer simply plugged in their instruments, maybe no one would have even noticed their brilliant air-guitar theatrics.
Following minor internet outrage (it seems to really pale in comparison with this week’s other most exhausting cultural news), Flea posted a long missive to his band’s website, admitting that they did perform alongside a prerecorded track, as they were asked to do by the NFL and Bruno Mars.
When we were asked by the NFL and Bruno to play our song Give It Away at the Super Bowl, it was made clear to us that the vocals would be live, but the bass, drums, and guitar would be pre-recorded. I understand the NFL’s stance on this, given they only have a few minutes to set up the stage, there a zillion things that could go wrong and ruin the sound for the folks watching in the stadium and the t.v. viewers. There was not any room for argument on this, the NFL does not want to risk their show being botched by bad sound, period. … when this Super Bowl gig concept came up, there was a lot of confusion amongst us as whether or not we should do it, but we eventually decided, it was a surreal-like, once in a life time crazy thing to do and we would just have fun and do it. We had given this a lot of thought before agreeing to do it, and besides many a long conversation amongst ourselves, I spoke with many musician friends for whom I have the utmost respect, and they all said they would do it if asked, that it was a wild trippy thing to do, what the hell. Plus, we the RHCP all love football too and that played a big part in our decision. We decided that, with Anthony singing live, that we could still bring the spirit and freedom of what we do into the performance, and of course we played every note in the recording specially for the gig. I met and spoke with Bruno, who was a beautiful dude, a real talented musician, and we worked out something that seemed like it would be fun. We recorded a track for the day, just banged one out from our hearts that was very like in spirit to the versions we have been playing live the last few years with our beloved Josh on guitar. For the actual performance, Josh, Chad, and I were playing along with the pre recorded track so there was no need to plug in our guitars, so we did not. Could we have plugged them in and avoided bumming people out who have expressed disappointment that the instrumental track was pre recorded? Of course easily we could have and this would be a non-issue. We thought it better to not pretend. It seemed like the realest thing to do in the circumstance. It was like making a music video in front of a gazillion people, except with live vocals, and only one chance to rock it. Our only thought was to bring the spirit of who we are to the people.
Flea ends his note with an apology, which is unnecessary. The fact of the matter is, playing the Super Bowl is a big deal, whether you’re a relatively fresh act with one or two albums on sale or one with many decades of experience and recognizable names and faces. And in their defense, the band did perform — because they are adept entertainers, they delivered perhaps more than what was expected from the small slice of the halftime show in which they performed. With all of the technical hurdles in place, the band could have half-assed the show entirely. But they made compromises, as most artists must do, for the exposure to a wide audience. And in all fairness, you can’t shame them too hard for something that most would do if given the opportunity.